“Vers l’Orient compliqué, je volais avec des idées simples”

Jean-Baptiste Begat

This is a featured piece sent in response to our Focus of the Week. Keep an eye out for future topics and let us know your views!

On 30th September, the Russian Air Force led their first airstrikes in Syria, flying over the Turkish territory. These events took place only two months after the public backing of the highly controversial Turkish airstrikes in north-west Syria and south-east of Turkey by NATO’s General Secretary Stoltenberg. In what seems to be an escalation of involvement in the region between Russia and the western world, NATO announced the doubling of the size of its Response Force. These recent facts should not be interpreted through the only prism of history, specifically the resurgence of the so-called “bi-polar world” where the rest is the theatre of power struggle between the two main poles. Far from denying the impact of Russian recent involvement in the Iraqi-Syrian crisis on the conflictual relationship between Western countries and Russia, the international network of interest that is at stake in the ISIS crisis should be kept in mind. What are Putin’s goals in a massive Russian participation to the fight against the Islamic State ? Are these goals realistic, considering the Western geopolitical stances and interests in the region ? Do they form part of a long-term Russian political vision of stability in the area ?

Three main incentives may have caused Russia to become a protagonist in the war against ISIS. First of all, the recent Russian involvement in the Middle-East appears, in conventional wisdom, to be a matter of domestic policy for Putin. It is a historical cliché that governments which face difficulties in meeting domestic expectations tend to become hyperactive on the international stage, thus giving the impression that dealing with international emergencies is far more important than unemployment, demographic crisis and the economic recovery. The culturalist politico-historical point made by those who consider that Putin flatters Russian pride should not be neglected either. Historically, the geographical spectrum of Russian political influence has been only recently shrunk, and Putin’s propaganda is keen on asserting that the country of the Tsars must take on its historical responsibility and fight to protect Middle East minorities, just like it did under Catherine the Great or Stalin. Putin’s rhetoric to justify Russian involvement in Syria also successfully links the conflict in the Middle-East with terrorist attacks on the motherland. Such arguments are effective in convincing the Russian of the need for a deeper military involvement in the fight against ISIS, and they are also used by Western countries (see recent public speeches by the French Defence Minister Le Drian to justify new airstrikes in Syria). However, one should keep in mind that Russia does not seem a target of importance for terrorist attacks by ISIS propaganda, unlike France or the United States, for instance. Finally, there is Putin’s energy policy: the new Vienna agreement is leading to the massive entry of Iranian gas on the Western energy market, provoking an important devaluation of Russian oil. In that context, new primary sources of energy are sought by the Russians, especially with the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government of Barzani. But war is not good for business. 

Secondly, Putin’s policy in the Middle-East is also much of a regional one. Flying over Turkey was not a pilot navigational mistake; it was intended to be understood by the Turkish as a strong signal. Indeed, Turkey recently led airstrikes against the PKK (Kurdish autonomist political party, based in south-east Turkey, known for its use of violence and considered by most countries as a terrorist organisation) positions as well as against ISIS. However, the Kurds are one of Putin’s strongest allies in the Middle-East, for reasons bothhistoric - the father of Masoud Barzani, leader of the pre-eminent Kurdish party the KDP, found shelter in Moscow in 1946 after the failure of his coup d’état in Iraq - and military - the Kurdish Peshmerga are the only ground force efficient against ISIS in the north. Since the Russians cannot publicly back the Kurdish military effort without offending Iran (they only provide the Kurds with intelligence at the moment), which also has to deal with Kurdish secessionism in the north-west of the country, the only option left for Russia is to deliver a strong message directly to Turkey. Flying over its territories with warplanes is one way to do so.

Another regional incentive for Putin’s policy in the Middle-East is to woo Iran. Russia was particularly quiet during the diplomatic negotiations that led to the Vienna agreement, and now has the opportunity to show Iran that it doesn’t follow blindly the “international coalition” (the West), fighting ISIS its own way, just as Iran does by backing the Iraqi government, and could strengthen ties with Iran, whose supreme leader Ali Khamenei recently reminded that in spite of the agreement, Iranian international interests remained very different from those of Western countries. Add to this the fact that, by backing Bashar al-Assad, Putin supports the Shi’ite Alawi Syrian minority and you have all the reasons to believe in future rapprochement between Russia and Iran. 

Finally, the Russian fight against ISIS should also be interpreted in the broader context of international relations with the West. Many Cassandras have spoken and written about the rise of a new Russian imperialism, and even a “second Cold War”. Without going into these difficult prophetic exercises, Putin must have considered the big picture when he decided to fight actively and publicly against ISIS. Putin’s international policy – which reminds much of the Cold War “linkage” policy - should be seen as a whole, and a potential success of the Russian in their fight against ISIS would put the OSCE and NATO in a very difficult position when it comes to diplomatic negotiations about the Ukrainian “frozen conflict”. To a great extent, the Middle East question was one of the last productive diplomatic channels between the West and Russia. If Russia intervene its own way In Syria - and succeeds - the legitimacy which will be drawn from it may give him the possibility to cut that channel too. This is especially true if the West keeps on refusing any political solution in Syria that includes Bashar al-Assad, a man who made use of chemical weapons banned by international laws against his own people. 

Countries already committed to the fight against ISIS should wisely consider these two alternatives. From a diplomatic standpoint, it seems like there is little chance that Western countries will go along with the Russian proposal of fighting ISIS alongside with Assad. Most Eastern European countries are concerned by Russian expansionism in the West, and see in Russia the first threat to their national security. It would be difficult to imagine these same countries, who keep asking NATO for a more significant military presence, going along with the Russian Middle East policy. As for Western European countries, which are the most cautious ones regarding military operations in the international coalition, they are faced with the difficult choice between sticking to their first policy, finding a political consensus in Syria that excludes the dictator before leading any massive military operations, with the risk of waiting too long while the Russians take all the credit of potential military successes, or following the Russian policy, thus giving the diplomatic credit to Putin. These countries are also attached to international laws, under the light of which Putin’s intervention in Syria is on the very edge of legality (does help to self-defence apply to the Assad regime which clearly does not represent the Syrian people as a whole?). The same goes for American countries. Finally, it is very difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia – an important protagonist in the international coalition because of its military infrastructures and its proximity to the Iraqi-Syrian theatre - going along with Russia, considering its diplomatic proximity with Western countries and its rivalry with Iran. 

From a military standpoint, it is a bit too early to say whether the Russian backing of Bashar al-Assad (which, in concrete terms, means airstrikes, financial and logistical support, building of infrastructures and sending of non-fighting military troops) is actually efficient in the fight against ISIS. Doubts are reasonable though since the Russian should face the same difficulties the international coalitions met, namely a lack of intelligence, which should be the first step towards efficient targeting and successful military operations.  The only advantage the Russians may have on the international coalition is that they do not have to deal with the very difficult issue of coordination between several national air forces with their own command structures. 

The most important military concern, however, is to be found in the fact that a huge proportion of Russian airstrikes in Syria do not seem to aim at ISIS positions, but rather at the Syrian opposition. The United-Kingdom has recently announced that the British intelligence is currently working in order to identify what the Russian targets are. It is more than clear that Western countries cannot be part of a military coalition that fights the political opposition of an unwanted dictator. At the end of the day, the Russian policy may run counter to Russian interests; on top of accelerating the phenomenon of Syrian refugees who flee to Europe, these airstrikes are counterproductive since they help ISIS - whom the Syrian opposition to Bashar also fight. And if he does not get any military success quickly, Putin may wake the old Afghan trauma of the Russian people. Maybe he should read De Gaulle’s Mémoires de Guerre once more before going too hastily into the Middle East: “Vers l’Orient compliqué, je volais avec des idées simples”.